“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”
Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.
“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”
Sorry to Bother You is a hell of a movie. Before watching it, I’d heard it described as Office Space for Millennials, but that’s only partly true. Much like Office Space, it goes beyond office humor and very succinctly details all of the generation’s frustrations with the workforce, and it’s very funny to watch; however, Sorry to Bother You goes beyond the office and also comments on race, politics, and capitalism. Office Space was an anthem for Generation X people who were entering the workforce (like myself), but Sorry to Bother You is one of the smartest and most daring satires I’ve ever seen on any topic. Written and directed by Boots Riley and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, this is sharp, funny, at times shocking, and perhaps above all else, thought-provoking, and that’s a tall order for any movie, let alone one that’s as entertaining as this one.
“Let’s face it—this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”
It’s hard to imagine this time, but superhero movies used to be, well, pretty terrible. DC Comics franchises had a surprise hit in 2005 with Batman Begins, but Marvel Comics franchises had been mediocre at best. We had the X-Men movies, and the Spider Man movies, and a few oddballs like 2003’s Hulk and Daredevil. Each of these had problems. Lower budgets meant special effects suffered in places where they really shouldn’t have suffered. Characters were often shallow, and the acting matched. The direction of the movies gave them this larger-than-life feeling that felt far removed from what we saw everyday. What we needed was a down-to-earth, relatable hero, played by a charming actor or actress, placed into extraordinary circumstances with a special effects budget to match. In 2008, Iron Man finally delivered.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, The Jungle Book) and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, this was a surprise hit for many reasons. Of course the track record for Marvel-franchise movies was bad, but director Jon Favreau hadn’t directed anything like Iron Man before; star Robert Downey Jr. had been in and out of rehab and wasn’t known as a reliable actor; and the character of Tony Stark was very different than the heroes we had seen in film thus far: arrogant and full of vices. But Iron Man worked better than I think any of us were expecting it to, introducing viewers to the now hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Comic book movies had, up until this point, been mainly for die-hard comic book fans, but this film opened up the genre to general audiences and opened the door for some of the amazing movies we’re getting today.
“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.
“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”
It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.
“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?
“SANTA! OH MY GOD! SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!”
Will Ferrell has always been really hit-or-miss for me; so have Christmas movies. Thankfully, Elf, a 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell, is a huge hit. Directed by Jon Favreau (About a Boy, Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and James Caan, this Christmas film is just the right amount of goofiness and sentiment to make it special without making it so sugary sweet that I need to watch Fight Club afterwards. I debated whether it belongs on my list of classic and essential films, but after watching it again this holiday season, I have to admit: this is a great film that’s fun to watch and will be around for decades, much like A Christmas Story. Even after watching this virtually every Christmas for the last ten years or so, it’s still a joy to watch. It’s a fun holiday film that can make any dreary December a little more merry.
“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”
Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!”
There are a ton of kids movies out there, but there’s just something magical about The Wizard of Oz that’s endured for 80 years—and will for many more. Directed mostly by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) and starring Judy Garland, this film has sold so many copies and had so many television screenings that it very well might be the most watched film of all time—the Library of Congress seems to think so. I’d seen this film at least ten times, but recently had the chance to watch it with my four-year-old nephew. That’s really how this film should be viewed: as a child, or with a child. The visuals, the plot elements, and the characters all set the imagination into motion, and it’s because every part of this film was meticulously planned and executed. Though the film may be a bit campy for adults, it’s an undeniably classic film that’s not only the best of its time—it may be the best of the medium.
“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”
The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.